Sarah Strommen isn't the first Department of Natural Resources commissioner to realize the future of land, water and outdoor-recreation funding is strewn with land mines.
But she's the first to attempt to do something about it.
In an interview last week, Strommen outlined — at times broadly, at times more specifically — a process that by next year will determine how Minnesota can better fund natural-resource and outdoor-recreation management.
The effort will kick off June 29, when a small group of non-DNR employees familiar with fundraising, resource management and public policy gathers to study and discuss funding issues plaguing resource agencies nationwide.
The North American conservation model, as it's often called, has been almost solely dependent since its development more than a half-century ago on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and on federal excise taxes on hunting, fishing and archery gear.
With baby-boomers graying and with subsequent generations not participating in these activities in the same proportion, the funding scheme is showing its age.
Paradoxically, this is occurring when intensified land, water and recreation management has never been more necessary. Invasive species such as zebra mussels and Asian carp demand attention. The state's human population continues to grow, using up fish and wildlife habitat as it does. And Minnesotans who do play outdoors often do so in ways that are management-dependent yet provide little revenue — think bike and hiking trails, for example.
"Our diverse and healthy natural resources define our state,'' Strommen said, "and we know the rich recreational activities that are available to us today exist because we made investments in the past that allowed us to steward those resources.
"Unfortunately, some of those foundational investments aren't being made today. The goal is to develop a new and comprehensive funding framework to protect the state's resources and to provide for Minnesotans to utilize those resources.''
Some resource-funding shortfalls can be traced to the Legislature. The state's CWD crisis is an example. To protect the state's 1 million-plus wild deer and the hunting traditions these animals support, Minnesota's relative handful of domestic deer farmers should be bought out and the industry shut down.
Grade-school kids could figure this out. But too often legislators act only when the state's agriculture industry or other special interests pulls their strings. Which is why, again this year, whenever the Legislature finally concludes its work, deer farmers likely will still be in business and state agencies' efforts to keep CWD in check will remain underfunded.
That said, and on the plus side, Minnesotans possess almost unlimited good will for the state's "outdoors'' and if given a chance to play a positive role in their management and funding, they will.
Dave Zentner of Duluth is among the eight or so DNR outsiders Strommen has tapped to make up the initiative's citizens advisory panel.
A past national president of the Izaak Walton League and chairman of the committee that organized the 2005 Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water Rally at the Capitol that led to passage in 2008 of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Zentner has a lifetime's worth of business and conservation management experience.
"It's important for us to help develop the best plan possible so Minnesotans in general, as well as legislators and the governor, buy into it,'' Zentner said Friday. "I'm supportive of new funding models. But I also want to have some good conversations about resource-management accountability and outcomes. That's my going-in attitude.''
Strommen stresses "we have to get beyond admiring the problem.''
"The goal of this initial group,'' she said, "is to share knowledge, shape a vision, identify blind spots and advise us about who else we need to engage with to help develop the plan.''
Whatever plan is ultimately agreed to, the people who today are primary contributors to resource management must pay more, additional contributors must be added to the funding pool — or some combination of the two must be developed.
"We have to ask ourselves, 'How much funding do we need to operate the system we want?''' Strommen said. "Operating at a bare minimum is not, I don't think, how Minnesotans want their resources managed. Nor is it what the DNR wants. We want to manage resources and outdoors recreation options equal to the value Minnesotans place on them.''
Other states will be canvassed to see if ideas they've adopted could work here. One option, Strommen said, might be to establish a trail-user's fee. Another could be to propose a state excise tax on some outdoor equipment. Everything's on the table.
Doubtless as the process unfolds cynics and naysayers will emerge. The DNR and its advisory panel would do well to ignore them.
Too much is at stake to do otherwise.
"This is entirely different from anything we've done before, so there's no blueprint on how to proceed,'' Strommen said. "After we gather this first group together and move ahead, we want to collaborate more broadly and hear from a cross-section of Minnesotans.
"But I'm adamant we have an actionable framework for a new funding plan developed by the second half of next year.''